Around ten years ago, there was this commercial with a guy and his seemingly perfect family. They had a huge house, nice cars, a swimming pool in their backyard, and they were having a barbecue with a ton of people and kids running around having fun. The camera zeroed in on the guy, who was sporting this Black Hole Sun-like smile, stretched pretty wide, and this disembodied voice asked him how he was able to maintain such a lifestyle. With the eerie smile firmly planted in place, he honestly answered, “Easy. I’m in debt up to my eyeballs.”
And it was hilarious. Not hilarious in that it was absolutely funny, but hilarious in that ironic way, that way that says we know what he’s feeling. We laughed…then, we looked into our own bank accounts and wished upon a star.
A couple of years before that commercial hit the airwaves, I was dealing with a very similar problem–except I didn’t have the house, the cars, or the beautiful family swimming in our pool. Instead, I had a full-time job working at a pizza buffet, a full college class schedule, and a mountain of bills. And the reason I was behind the eight-ball when it came to finances was sitting all around me on, shelf upon shelf.
CDs were my obsession. I would get my paycheck on Friday, and by that night I was at the record store buying scads of music. And it wasn’t even like I was buying just music I liked. I was going there, browsing, and then purchasing whatever struck my fancy. It was routine for me to spend a couple of hours in there, and when I was done to come out with over $200 dollars worth of music. I know. It was a true obsession, and I knew no other way to feed it.
Then I would get home, look at my stack of bills, and figure out how the remaining $200 from my paycheck would cover rent, the growing phone bill, paying off the new 37” TV, buying gas, and getting groceries.
I never balanced my checkbook, either. I was often just guessing when it came to how much money I thought I had in my bank account at any one time. I remember standing in line at the grocery store to check out, and crossing my fingers, praying that the little screen would say “Approved,” and I wouldn’t have to slink out of there embarrassed (which, sadly, did happen from time to time, at which point I just ate leftover pizza from my job until I could buy food). The rent payment would routinely be late, and my landlords were not pleased with me. I would often have to go out the back door when I left, because they would hound me over it constantly.
I knew it was stupid to buy so many CDs, to spend so much time and energy on something I would listen to for two seconds, and then would take its place collecting dust alongside the hundreds of other CDs on the shelf. I just couldn’t seem to help myself. Many times I told myself that I was going to stop. I even set limits for myself. I wasn’t going to go over $50. Then I wasn’t going to buy anything new, just used. Then I was going to spend only a half an hour in there. Then I was going to avoid going there at all. All of which fell completely flat once I had that paycheck in my hands, once it was burning a hole in my pocket.
It didn’t even matter that I also had credit card bills, that the companies were calling me because I had fallen woefully behind on paying every single one of them, or that I knew I was in danger of getting kicked out of my apartment.
What I needed was therapy, but I didn’t get it, not then. And it wasn’t even the first time I had gotten in financial difficulties because of my spending habits. It had happened before, back when I was barely 20, stealing from my mother in order to take girls to the movies, shopping on South Street, or even take the odd excursion to Boston. It didn’t hit me then because it wasn’t my money. Only after I was caught, after I was guilty, did I decide it wasn’t worth it.
That kept me honest for quite a while, but the cycle began all over again once I was in Tennessee. The record store called out to me over and over, like a foghorn.
“Sam, come buy music. Sam, come buy music.”
And like one of the Pied Piper’s infamous rats, I followed its call. The only thing that stopped me was the idea that I could break the cycle, that I could get away from that place, and in essence, that I could start fresh elsewhere. Maybe that would be the impetus to break my bad spending habits that had gotten me into such debt. And also, maybe the credit card companies wouldn’t get my new number, so they wouldn’t be able to harass me anymore.
The problem? Lending the money to use for the move.
For about two months, I scrimped and saved. I even paid off my rent in that time period. I only visited the record store once in that time period (but I spent over $100 on that trip), so I felt like I at least had a shot. The phone company had shut off my service, my internet was gone, and the cable company had taken away the feed to my new 37” TV, thereby making it useless except to play videotapes. But I wasn’t worrying about any of that. I had to use whatever money I had to rent a moving truck and to get out of town.
It was easier said than done. The first place I went to declined my card, saying I had insufficient funds. The second place refused to insure me against loss or damage because of the low funds in my account. But finally the third place didn’t seem to see any problems whatsoever, even though my bank account had to have been in the negative by that point. I held my breath while they gave me the paperwork to fill out, and I drove away in one of their trucks.
I drove here on fumes, literally on fumes. If it weren’t for my friend traveling with me who paid for one full tank of gas along the way, I still wouldn’t have been able to make it. Once I was here, I definitely took stock of my life, where I wanted to go, and how I had to make the big decision. Luckily for me, I had an amazing girlfriend (who is now my wife) who challenged me to contact my creditors and see what kinds of deals I could make to clear the credit debacle I had created for myself. I even contacted the phone company, to whom I owed over $2000 dollars (I know, how did that happen, right?) and I was able to pay it off for a fraction over $750. The same was true for my credit card bills. The bank account was a different story, because renting the moving truck had put me massively over even the overdraft protection, and they weren’t lenient at all, but eventually I paid that off too.
I was truly ready to start over.
That’s when I first saw that commercial, with the creepy-eyed, stretchy-mouthed guy saying how he was in debt up to his eyeballs. I knew what that felt like, and I didn’t like it at all. And I think it took hitting that kind of rock bottom to scare me straight, as it were.
Now, did I stop going to record stores? No. But instead of putting limits on what I was going to spend, I just didn’t bring money or credit cards with me when I went. If I couldn’t pay for it, then I couldn’t be tempted to buy it. That’s how I got out of debt, and stayed out of debt. Maybe I still need to see that therapist about my addictive tendencies, but for now, I think I’m pretty level.
And my bank account thanks me.
[Contributed by Sam McManus]